While the second wave of COVID-19 is raging, the pandemic still is at the core of false/misleading information targeting Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland. Accusations of not being able to handle the crisis, spread by the Kremlin related media, doubled down on the ever-present narratives of Baltic countries and Poland serving the West by interfering in Belarus and allowing NATO military exercises on their territory.
In November 2020, Debunk EU analysed 1,175 articles with false and misleading content from 102 media outlets in the Baltic countries and Poland in English, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian languages. The articles had a potential reach of 226 million contacts.
Throughout the monitored period, the vectors of the volume of false and misleading coverage on the Baltic countries went in different directions. Lithuania saw a steep growth of disinformation (up by 42.7% measured by hits), in turn, Latvia saw a modest decline (down by 9.9%), whilst Estonia showed a moderate increase in the volume (up by 25.9%).
Measured by reach, the coverage targeting Lithuania grew by 14.4%, that of Estonia declined by 4.7%, and the indicator halved in Latvia (down by 50.7%). The trend of the lower average reach per article applicable to all the Baltic countries may be explained by the Kremlin propaganda targeting local audiences in the Baltics more, rather than in October, when such news as expelling a former officer of the soviet armed forces from Latvia was highly usable for a wider auditorium in Russia itself.
Moreover, the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic had its impact on the disinformation/misinformation flow in the Baltics and Poland. In Lithuania, COVID-19 ranked 3rd in terms of hits, yet only 10th measured by reach (keeping the overall reach lower simultaneously). In Poland, COVID-19 was the leading narrative in November measured by the number of articles; those also received the most reaction on Facebook.
The Anti-Baltics and Poland narrative involved misleading criticism directed towards the Baltic countries and Poland for their stance towards the protests in Belarus and expanding the sanctions against Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime. The use of this rhetoric has been on decline for several months now, and in November, prompted by the U.S. presidential election and NATO military exercises, the sub-narrative portraying the Baltic states and/or Poland as U.S./NATO vassals was on the rise.
Expanding sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime added the most to the spread of Anti-Baltics narrative in Estonia. On November 20th, following the death of Belarusian protester Roman Bondarenko, Estonia proposed new sanctions against Belarus, which caused a spike in otherwise steady but slow flow of articles.
Notably, since the launch of the BelNPP in November, the pro-Kremlin media has intensified their disinformation narratives regarding the stance of the Baltic states towards the BelNPP and their refusal to purchase electricity from Belarus. In November, those narratives singled out Estonia as well, where in previous months, the rhetoric only pertained to Lithuania and Latvia.
The analysis has shown that the failed state narrative was fuelled by the governmental crisis in the country which was sparked by interpretations of the U.S. elections voiced by some officials. The Estonian government crisis started in October, caused by an interview of the Estonian Internal Minister Mart Helme to the Russian service of Deutsche Welle.
In November, after denouncing the U.S. election result as rigged and calling president-elect Joe Biden “corrupt”, Mr. Helme resigned, along with his son the Finance Minister Martin Helme. To add fuel to the fire, Mailis Reps resigned as Education minister following the mounting pressure over her use of a ministerial car for non-official work. The story about Helme was once again used as an opportunity to speak of the U.S. as the “master” and Estonia as the “servant”.
Throughout the monitored period several different topics were discussed by pro-Kremlin media to show anti-Russian policies in Estonia. Estonia was portrayed to falsely accuse Russian media, discriminating individuals just based on what language they spoke, accusing Russia of manipulating history. The disinformation narratives went even as far as claiming that prominent governmental figures were agents of the Kremlin.
According to the Debunk EU analyst in Estonia, Kremlin related media is known for constructing its narrative using malign rhetoric. The technique involves whataboutism, which means twisting criticism back on the initial critic. The tactic has been a part of both Soviet and Russian propaganda, also used by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was clearly visible in a series of articles on the resolution adopted by the 26th Baltic Council on attempts on behalf of Russia to manipulate history, especially concerning the onset of WW2.
In November, the most prevailing disinformation narrative about Latvia was Enemising Russia and its sub-narrative Russophobia. The second most prevailing narrative described Latvia as Failed state.
A trend which was observed back in October continued throughout November. “Many articles with false and misleading content focused on Russia as a key pillar of Latvian economy and Latvia as a highly Russophobia-driven state. The two interrelated closely, as Latvia was said to have lost Russia’s support (trade and transit) because of its irrational anti-Russian policies.
The analysis has shown that this trend was also supported by biggest news stories of the month: a letter sent by a representative of the Latvian Ministry of Transport to a high-level Russian official In it, Uldis Reimanis addressed the Assistant Minister of Transport of the Russian Federation, Yuri Petrov, about the fact that there is a long bureaucratic procedure for cargo clearance and as a result the volume of cargo dropped dramatically. The pro-Kremlin media portrayed this step as Latvia “begging” Russia to save it from the total collapse of transit, proliferating the cliché it had used for many years: the Latvian economy would break down without the aid from Russia.
Latvian celebrations of the Independence Day on November 18 were also used as pretext for accusations of Russophobia. The event, designed to commemorate the declaration of independence in 1918, was used as a means to question the country’s sovereignty, claiming it was not able to survive without the help from western countries/blocs and/or Russia. It was also used to reiterate the claims that Latvia pursues Russophobic policies and is engaged in rewriting history along with the guidelines from superior powers, e.g., the U.S. Notably, the fact of soviet occupation is repeatedly denied in the pro-Kremlin media, by, for instance, putting the word "Soviet occupation" into quotation marks.
Another example of the aforementioned portrayal of Baltic states as “vassals of the U.S. and NATO” could be the speeches by Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the annual Rīga Conference on November 13th. Both of them spoke about Russia remaining a threat, yet the pro-Kremlin media translated Stoltenberg’s words into saying:
“At the same time, Russia remains our biggest neighbour. It is not going anywhere. That is why we maintain dialogue with Russia”.
This quote was used to create an impression of NATO rejecting Russophobic policies of the Baltic countries, which are more afraid of NATO being in dialogue with Russia then an armed conflict on their territories.
Throughout the month of November, Lithuania was mostly presented as a failed state, having incompetent government that is incapable of conducting rational policy, especially concerning the launch of BelNPP. The highest increase of disinformation was identified on November 2nd-3rd and November 11th, mostly triggered by a tense political situation surrounding the launch of BelNPP as well as statements made by Russian and Belarusian official figures regarding the safety of the plant.
The analysis has shown that Kremlin-related media outlets and official representatives of Belarus engaged in coordinated attempts to undermine and ridicule Lithuanian position towards the BelNPP. In addition to derisive associations of Lithuania being ‘hysteric’, ‘jealous’, ‘unreasonable’ and ‘irrational’, there were continuous accusations of Lithuanian government being irresponsible and intimidating its citizens with non-existent threats. On the other hand, there was an attempt to present the BelNPP as a ‘success’ story by emphasizing closer integration and ‘unity’ between the Russian Federation and Belarus.
Compared to previous periods, November also sought a sharp increase in COVID-19 narrative. As with the first wave of the pandemic, the increase in COVID-19 related problematic information coincided with the introduction of a lockdown in Lithuania, thus suggesting this narrative to gain more usage as it had in spring. Notably, increase in dissemination of this narrative was also witnessed within non-systemic Lithuanian language media sources, which accumulated for almost two-thirds of all COVID-19 narrative mentions throughout November. This shows a stark contrast to what was observed in October, when such cases constituted less than 1% of all COVID-19 related misleading information.
Moreover, NATO military exercises in Lithuania Brilliant Jump 2020 and Iron Wolf 2020 caused an increase of coverage from the Kremlin-related digital media sources. On the one hand, claims about military drills being ‘provocative’ and ‘dangerous’ were used to demonize the Alliance. On the other hand, the Kremlin-related media also sought to assume the role of ‘arbitrator’ and encourage negative reactions as well as general dissatisfaction with the activity of NATO allied forces in the domestic audiences of Lithuania by claiming that military drills are becoming a ‘burden’ for common citizens and that it would eventually cause inconveniences to the country, e.g., damaged roads, car accidents, traffic jams etc.
Additionally, throughout the monitored period Kremlin-related media outlets sought to portray Lithuania along with other Baltic countries as ‘sympathizing with the ideas of Nazism and Fascism’. The desecration of Obeliai Soviet soldiers' cemetery in November was presented as an example of the supposed rehabilitation of Nazism.
Commenting on this incident, Russian Embassy in Lithuania falsely speculated that the desecration is a possible result of “[...] poured streams of Russophobia, and attempts to present Russian, Soviet people and Soviet soldiers in the most negative way in [Lithuania].”
During November, Polish media focused on three main topics: protests about the tightening of abortion law, coronavirus and purchase of vaccine, and Polish veto of the EU budget. Poland was also presented as a Russophobic country in relations to the Katyń massacre, Smoleńsk investigations, and Polish-U.S. relations.
In the beginning of the month media focused its attention on mass protests across the country against the tightening of abortion law. These events were used to spread disinformation about the unstable situation in the country. In pro-Kremlin media such as sputniknews.pl and kresy.pl a specific rhetoric was spotted in relation to the letter of retired generals and admirals regarding protests. These articles served to spread disinformation about the preparation of a military coup aimed at overthrowing the government within the Polish army.
Poland was mostly presented as an unreasonable country due to buying a „dangerous” vaccine (Anti-vaccine sub-narrative) and overestimating the COVID-19 effects by introducing unreasonable restrictions. The analysis has shown that false and misleading coverage concerning vaccination against COVID-19 was noted in Poland along with the news on the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines by the EU and Poland. Major messages related to the issue concerned the allegedly insufficient testing of the vaccine and potential side effects.
Apart from the Covid-19 topic, the narrative Anti-Baltics & Poland was the most common one, under which Poland was presented as interfering into internal affairs of Belarus and being part of the general conspiracy to overthrow Lukashenko’s regime. These included allegations of U.S. special services centres hostile to Minsk in Warsaw, the announcement of an unpublished Belarusian KGB report containing unconfirmed quotes from the Polish Prime Minister regarding preparations for a military takeover of Belarus or the destruction of its economy, as well as request of extradition of NEXT journalists.
Poland and Hungary veto of linking the EU budget with the rule of law mechanism, sparked a wave of problematic information: according to Debunk EU analyst in Poland, it was either the EU portrayed as interfering with the sovereignty of member states and imposing the so-called gender ideology, or Poland presented as a troublemaker and announcing Polexit (later denied by the government). In this case, articles were hostile towards the EU, stating that it interferes with the sovereignty of Member States. However, they were positive towards Poland, presenting it as the protector of its citizens rights.
In November, the coverage of pro-Kremlin media on the presidential election in the U.S. remained exceptionally negative with sharp and grossly exaggerated statements targeted against Poland by presenting it as a U.S. vassal. Escalation of this subject was also connected to the U.S.-Poland Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement and the end of NATO TUMAK-20 exercises, where U.S. troops were presented as an additional threat to the Poles and destabilization of the region.
To elaborate more on the Anti-NATO rhetoric, it has been steadily present in the false and misleading coverage on the Baltic countries and Poland. NATO military exercises usually serve as a trigger of disinformation flow, and November was no exception.
Within the narrative this month, much emphasis was placed on the effects the drills have on the local population: the news stories were abounded with pictures and videos on NATO military equipment on the roads in the Baltics, as in the case of Lithuania, which “has to stop and move to roadside as soon as NATO shows up” (baltnews.lt, 09/11/2020).
The picture of NATO armed forces was painted black, accusing them of shooting in the vicinity of schools and hospitals, military columns blocking traffic on highways, stray shells flying into residential sectors (lv.baltnews.com, 03/11/2020). “Servicemen from NATO countries who arrive in Lithuania and other Baltic republics have been repeatedly reported by the Lithuanian police for violations. This is not only about drunken antics and brawls, but also traffic accidents” (lt.sputniknews.ru, 03/11/2020).
A similar pattern was traceable in Poland, where NATO and US soldiers were presented as aggressive and drunk. Moreover, falsified information about a fight between soldiers was produced and spread:
“The reason was the rude behaviour of the Americans. After the dinner, a group of drunken American soldiers began to insult the Poles, calling them Polish pigs, expressing their dissatisfaction with the conditions of stay and the level of training of the soldiers of the 15th Brigade. As a result, there was a fight in which some Polish soldiers suffered a serious head injury” (Dziennik-polityczny.com, 30/11/2020).
In November, roughly half of the coverage as measured by articles, was published by Kremlin mouthpieces: Sputnik and Baltnews websites, as well as rubaltic.ru. The addition of the data on Poland to the analysis resulted in neon24.pl and news-fron.info among the top 10 media sources with regards to false and misleading content.
Measured by reach, ria.ru took the first position with a share of 25.5% (57.7 million potential contacts via16 articles, against 215 published by sputniknews.ru, which secured it 5.6% share by reach, at 12.7 million). It was followed by rambler.ru (30.8 million via 8 hits) and rt.com (22.4 million via 10 articles).
In November 2020, with the addition of Poland to the analysis, nczas.com topped the list of false/misleading coverage providers in the four countries in terms of social interactions. nczas.com is the website of the Polish far right tabloid Najwyższy Czas! founded by the controversial former MEP Janusz Korwin Mikke.
Within the monitored period, we found and analysed 141 articles (41.2 million potential contacts) with false and misleading content in Estonia (the number stood at 112 in October 2020), 210 articles (34.2 million) in Latvia and 458 in Lithuania (119 million; against 233 and 321 hits in the previous month, respectively), as well as 366 (31.5 million) in Poland.
The data from Poland was included into the report by Debunk EU on disinformation for the first time, hence no comparative analysis with regards to the country is available for the month of November 2020.
Disinformation analysis for November was executed by the Debunk EU team:
Senior analysts in Lithuania Balys Liubinavičius and Laima Venclauskienė,
Senior analyst in Estonia Enel Ehrenhaft,
Senior analyst in Latvia Kristine Skujina-Troksa,
Senior analyst in Poland Magdalena Wilczyńska.
Debunk EU analysts use multiple tools to deliver reports:
DebunkEU analysis platform
CrowdTangle - Facebook tool that tracks interactions on public content from Facebook pages and groups, verified profiles, Instagram.
Truly Media - collaboration platform developed to support primarily journalists in the verification of digital content.
TruthNest - Twitter data analysis platform.